It was almost sundown. The sky a brilliant swirl of reds and oranges with a tinge of blue to hint at the dusk that was about to fall. It was a welcome sight, especially for the weary people who had, for their own reasons, fought so that there would be a next day to look forward to. The nightfall was a clear sign that they had won against all odds, and most looked forward to heading to their own homes to get their well-deserved rest.

However, not all of them looked forward to the nightfall.

This is it, Tifa thought to herself a little sadly as she saw each member of their ragtag team go their own separate ways. Nanaki was the first one to go, as he was eager to honor his father Seto's memory. Next was Yuffie, who impishly stole Cid's goggles as she jumped from the Highwind (Tifa wryly noticed Cloud stand to the box of materia until the ninja left for Wutai). Cait Sith was the next one who left, and the remaining party were able to catch a glimpse of black hair before the helicopter took off, this time with the fortunetelling cat. Following it was Vincent, who asked to be dropped off near the waterfalls, no doubt to commune with Lucrecia's spirit once again. Barret asked Cid to drop him off to Corel. From the Highwind, Tifa saw Barret square his shoulders before he entered the shanty town, and was gratified when she saw the big smile land on his face when he was welcomed by the people who had previously shunned him.

That left her and Cloud. Cid looked at the two of them, his eyes asking them the question his mouth cannot say.

Where will you two go?

Tifa looked at Cloud questioningly, who shrugged and then scratched his head, the action telling the martial artist more than words that he had no idea where to go too. It was funny, Tifa thought, that they were too busy fighting against Sephiroth and Meteor that they never really thought what they would do if they had won. The others had their own homes, or at least a semblance of it, but the two of them had nothing. Nibelheim held too many painful memories to go back there. Tifa's old home in Midgar had been destroyed when the plate fell on it. As for Cloud, he stopped having a home when he left Nibelheim those many years ago. He stayed at places, certainly, but there was no place in Gaia that he would call home. Cid invited the pair to stay with him in Rocket Town, at least until they got their bearings, but the two declined. They knew that there was a certain bespectacled scientist the pilot wanted to go home to, and they had no wish to intrude to the reconciliation that would be occurring. Thanking Cid for the offer, they asked him instead to drop them off to Mideel, figuring that the best place for them to start is the one where they found a second chance at life.

It never occurred to Tifa or Cloud to separate from each other.

xxx

While Tifa wasn't expecting a medal for their stint in saving the world, she was taken aback that the reward that they received was outright scorn from the townspeople. They have somehow heard that these people were former members of AVALANCHE, and what person living in the face of Gaia had not heard of the destruction they brought upon in Midgar? A careless comment made by one of the shopkeepers also revealed that the swordsman and the martial artist had something to do with their forcible eviction from their former homes, and all that held them back from tossing the two out of the small island was their fear of being annihilated by the so-called terrorists.

Still, they made their displeasure known. Maybe it was not obvious to Cloud, who tended to be oblivious about things going around him, but Tifa felt the rejection keenly. Shopkeepers who smilingly offered discounts to their customers ("It's 50% the whole day today!") immediately frowned when the bartender darkened their doorways, and disdainfully sold her their goods for more than their actual value. The ladies of Mideel were no better, immediately turning their backs and tittering when she would approach. She knew that she was their object of gossip. After all, they did not bother to hide their gossip from her ("Living together and not married? What scandal!" "And a barmaid to boot! She does not know how to be ashamed! What will her mother say?") They could not have known that her mother died when she was young, too young, and the reason why she started a bar was because she did not know any other means of livelihood, and she had to do what she must to earn, since Cloud was still too disoriented after shaking off the control of both Sephiroth and Hojo over him.

It became much worse when Marlene came to stay with them. It didn't help that Barret came at the dead of the night to drop her off, yelling in his customary way for them to hurry up and open the door for him. By then, the other townspeople have also risen at the sound of his voice, but they shrank back when they saw that the man who was yelling had, of all things, a gun in place of one of his hands. They muttered to themselves, but they went back to their own homes, for which Tifa was thankful. Still, their passive aggression came back in full force the same day that Barret left ("And now they have a child with them? Do they really have no shame at all?") Tifa could have held her head high no matter what they said when she was only living with Cloud, but she couldn't take the abuse directed at Marlene. Thankfully, the little girl was too innocent to understand the words thrown her way, but Tifa could, and her cheeks burned in anger and humiliation at hearing these things from people who supposedly knew better. She restrained herself from reacting, but there were days when it was all she could do to keep herself from lashing out at the people she and her friends were willing to throw their lives away for. "Attack me!" she wanted to shout at them. "Insult me! I don't care! But don't you even dare to take your anger out on a little girl who can't fight back! You have no idea that the hell she went through is worse than anything you could even imagine!" Still, she restrained herself. This was supposed to be the start of a new life, after all, and since Cloud did not seem to have any complaints about Mideel, she gritted her teeth and bore it, all the while hoping for deliverance.

Surprisingly, salvation came in the form of Rufus Shinra and his Turks. Dropping over in Mideel one day, he claimed surprise at seeing Cloud and Tifa and said that he was there to drop off some supplies from Shinra in aid of the "good people of Mideel" (which he proclaimed loudly, to the cheers of the townspeople and conveniently over Tifa's unladylike snort). Before he left, he offhandedly made a comment about a new city that the people have built near Midgar, and they were welcoming newcomers to help them in the construction. Tifa had looked at Cloud appealingly then, and she was surprised at the compassion in the swordsman's eyes as he agreed to checking it out. The spark of intelligence in their blue depths and the way his mouth quirked as he took in the people who were unabashedly glaring at them made the martial artist reevaluate her previous understanding of her childhood friend. Clearly, he was not as oblivious as she thought he was, and if he was willing to set aside his animosity for anything Shinra-related, then (and her heart leapt at this) he might just be willing to truly start anew.

xxx

Edge was not as friendly as Rufus had implied, but compared to the barefaced hostility of the Mideelians, Tifa almost felt that they were welcomed with open arms. The people were wary, certainly, but it was the wariness exhibited by people who lived too long in the streets and in the slums, and she quickly grew accustomed to it. While there were glances thrown her and (dare she say it?) her family's way when they unpacked in front of their new home, theirs were more curious than unwelcoming, although their eyes did widen a bit when they saw the giant sword strapped on Cloud's back and the Barret's metallic hand, who helped them in the move. There were still those who looked at them untrustingly, but whatever their opinions were, they kept it to themselves, for which Tifa was glad.

Life settled almost comfortably after that. It wasn't smooth sailing, far from it, but both her and Cloud tried their best to make their little family work. She started a bar again, in part thanks to Barret's planning and Cloud's encouragement, even when they were still in Mideel. While she was hesitant to use it, Marlene's enthusiasm about "Seventh Heaven" settled it as the name of their place. And because her heart dared to dream again, she decided to make it a combination of a bar and a restaurant, a venture she thought died along with her childhood.

Barret was right at one thing: some people did think that the solution to their problems was alcohol, and because Seventh Heaven was the only place that was serving it in Edge at that time, they all trooped there. The crowd was always loud and boisterous, the noise obviously coming from men from the streets, but they were also warm and friendly and they made the Seventh Heaven crew feel right at home. The wives were at first suspicious about the place, especially since the bartender happened to be an attractive young woman, but when they dropped by and got the chance to meet Tifa (and sample her cooking), they slowly warmed up to her, caught by Tifa's welcoming smile and infectious laugh.

At first, Tifa had hesitated at having their living quarters situated right over the bar, but Cloud assured her that he would be there to keep the ruckus and troublemakers out and if he happened to be away for some reason – and here he gave her a small smile – he knew with good authority that Tifa could singlehandedly break apart a melee of three dozen men without breaking a sweat. The bartender had laughed then, taking delight in seeing his rare, mischievous side, but she should have known that his words would foreshadow a horrible period in their family's life.

xxx

It started with the deliveries. Tifa had no problem with Cloud's new career as a delivery boy. In fact, she encouraged him, knowing that someone with his energy could not be kept in confined quarters for long. Plus, she had no illusions about how much money the bar brings, and she knew the money would make their monthly budget easier. And so he eventually took orders, first in nearby places like Kalm, and then eventually to farther areas, until his deliveries brought him as far as Wutai. Tifa would never admit it, but she missed him when he left, already being accustomed to the calm, quiet presence that has been with her in the past year or so. She also worried, not only because of the obvious dangers traveling brought, but also because she knew that Cloud was still not as together as he would like her to believe. The delivery for Elmyra, and the subsequent weeks that saw Cloud brooding, was a testament to that. Yet Tifa hoped that there was some way for him to keep going home. When he brought Denzel in, she thought that it helped solidify his presence in the household. She was wrong.

Weeks later, Cloud stopped coming home.

Tifa swung to and from anger to sadness when he left. Maybe Cloud wouldn't have left if she was the one who was waiting for him. Tifa pushed down the flash of resentment she felt when that thought came as a flood of guilt flowed over her. No, she couldn't think of her friend that way. It wasn't Aerith's fault that she was so cheerful and friendly. Everyone couldn't help but feel light when she was around, even managing to make Vincent Valentine crack a smile once in a while with her antics. No, it wasn't her fault that Cloud chose her over Tifa.

There were days when she did not even want to step out of the house, knowing that she'll be seeing the looks of sympathy from the people. Unmarried, two kids, and left alone. It wasn't quite as bad as the glares she got in Mideel, but the impact was just as bad. Maybe our family's a joke and home's a miserable illusion.

Still, Tifa kept her head up, if for nothing else, for the children. Marlene had a way about her that would instantly brighten her up, and Denzel did not need anyone moping around the house. Denzel. If there was anything good about Cloud's comings and goings, it was that it brought him to them, and Tifa did not deserve to mope when the little boy had a daily fight with geostigma for his life.

xxx

"Sorry it took me so long."

Tifa barely heard it over the noise of the crashing buildings behind her and the roar of Fenrir, but it allowed her to hope again. It was just a short single line, but it meant so much more for the both of them. It was an apology with many layers, but above all these was a new promise, which he punctuated by pulling one of her hands to his stomach and keeping it there as they sped to face Bahamut SIN.

xxx

Bahamut SIN had been vanquished and Sephiroth had been defeated once again, hopefully for the last time. A small smile quirked Tifa's lips when she remembered what happened when Cloud surfaced from the pool. He wasn't good with words, he never was, but somewhere along the way, he was taught that words weren't the only way to tell someone what he felt, a lesson he took to heart, which was why Tifa's hand was held securely in one of his ever since he reclaimed it back in the church. Tifa should have been delighted with the events in the past hours, but there was a part of her that dreaded returning to Seventh Heaven. By then, the townspeople would have been blind and deaf to have seen what she and her friends were able to do, and it would be surprising if they hadn't heard that they were members of AVALANCHE. Denzel might be healed now, and she had Cloud with her once again, but she dreaded the thought of uprooting the children once again. They had only begun to settle in, and despite Denzel's illness, he and Marlene had been able to make friends with some of the neighborhood kids. Her heart clenched when she saw the townspeople gathered silently outside the bar. No doubt they would be chased off from Edge because of the destruction they had brought to the place, where the people were only beginning to recover from the destruction that the plate crash, Meteor, and later on Geostigma had brought. Cloud must've felt her tension, as he squeezed her hand in support as he looked at her face before he gently pulled her to where the crowd was gathered. As one, they saw the family's approach, their faces expressionless. Tifa felt her footsteps slow and would've stopped had not Cloud continued to pull her with him. Bracing herself for the rejection she was about to hear, she closed her eyes…

And was gratified to feel thin, wrinkly arms go around her neck and her shoulder become moist. Opening her eyes in surprise, she saw an old lady sobbing uncontrollably on her shoulder, thanking her for what they've done for her family. Bemused, she looked around and saw her family and friends caught in the crowd, receiving the same praises and thanks for their act of bravery that brought the salvation. Before she could join her team, she found herself receiving one hug after another, most coming from sobbing mothers who sobbed their thanks for saving their families and homes. Cid, Cloud and Vincent were heartily thumped on their backs by the men, and Yuffie found herself the object of adoration by the young people. Nanaki and the stuffed cat that was Cait Sith were petted and hugged by the kids. Tifa grinned widely when she saw a small boy laughingly dangle on Barret's metal arm, once again restored in the shape of a hand. Suddenly, she found herself in the arms of another person, and she didn't need to see the flash of chocobo blond hair and feel the strong, steady beat of the person's heart to know who it was.

He hugged her tightly, not caring who saw the affectionate act and not letting go when cheers started emerging from the crowd (no doubt initiated by either Yuffie or Barret). Placing a gentle kiss on her forehead before pulling her to his chest again, he murmured softly in her ear, his words only for Tifa to hear.

"It's good to be home."

xxx

My first serious fic in a while. Hopefully, it's not too long. I was contemplating whether to cut this into a few chapters, but I decided against it because the pacing would become disjointed if it was divided into different sections.

Anyway, I hope you like it.:) Please review and let me know what you think.

Thanks!